I have flown the skies over the Rocky Mountains. I have seen the sun rise over the Tetons. I have been to the moon and built its cities. I have seen the Earth from orbit. I have ridden the fire into heaven.
I’m an astronaut, if you haven’t already guessed or I was. My name is Sumner Kaine. As we have begun to leave the confines of our planet and take our first, small steps into a larger universe, I have been a part of that process, and very proud of it. I have lived on Gagarin Station and on Lunar Colony 1, now called Armstrong. I have spent significant time separated from my wife Amy and my children, but I always deemed it worthwhile.
The program was in the process of choosing astronauts to be on the first manned spaceflight to Mars, the Explorer mission. I was one of the final candidates when during a routine training flight mission, the simulator I was in suffered a major malfunction and a panel exploded, sending shards of glass and steel into my face, shredding the corneas of both eyes.
Amy and the kids were with me constantly in the hospital, helping me through my pain and depression. Doctors told me I would need a corneal transplant and attempted to grow some from my own tissue, but there wasn’t enough to make it viable. I would have to have a transplant from a cloned or donor source. Cloned tissue would obviously be preferable in most cases but the time it would take to grow it would be prohibitive and I might miss my window of opportunity to fly to Mars. I’ve been an astronaut for some time now and there are only a few manned missions available during the years I’m likely to have left in my career.
It seemed like an eternity, but it was only a few weeks before I was informed that a compatible donor had been found for a corneal transplant. I would have to accept a new color for my eyes – the donors eyes were blue whereas mine had been brown but I figured as long as they worked everything was a-okay.
The surgery took place on a rainy Monday. I could hear the rain falling outside my window before I went in; Amy told me it was a gray, miserable day. Every day had een gray and miserable as far as I was concerned. I don’t mind telling you I was wallowing in self-pity a little bit. It certainly wasn’t attractive I know, but that wasn’t much of a concern at the time. Still, I was eagerly awaiting a pair of new eyes and I didn’t care where they came from, not really. I should have.
The surgery went very well according to Dr. Sharma. My vision had to be in tip-top condition in order to be able for me to function effectively as an astronaut, so I had specified – as had the Agency – that the donor eyes had to be perfect 20/20 or else the deal was off. It was all a little ghoulish – we were talking about people who had recently died, after all, and were bartering for their organs like they were spare parts for a lawnmower. Still, I tried to justify it to myself by believing that at least this person’s eyes would live on and get to see Mars, whereas they probably never would have in their original body.
A day or two later the bandages came off. I was nervous and excited. I couldn’t see much at first – everything was extremely blurry – but I could see. Dr. Sharma assured me that my new eyes would eventually readjust and work just fine. All the tests indicated that the transplant had taken. There was always a chance of tissue rejection, Dr. Sharma warned, but assured me that those cases were very rare indeed with the sophisticated DNA matching tests that are run in this day and age.
Dr. Sharma’s optimism proved to be well-founded and in a matter of days my vision was as good as it ever was, if not better. Even Dr. Sharma was impressed at how well things were working out. “I’ve never seen such a rapid readjustment from a corneal transplant in my entire career,” he said stroking his moustache (an affectation of his I gathered – I didn’t see him doing it before the surgery of course), “It’s almost miraculous.”
That really didn’t mean anything to me. I was focused on one goal alone. “When will I be able to get back into the program, Doctor?” I asked. He shrugged. “Ordinarily I would say you need at least a month to recover and for your eyes to get adjusted to their new environment, but it seems reasonable that you’ll be back much sooner than that. I’d like to monitor you for the next week or two to make sure there is no late tissue rejection indications, but otherwise you should be able to get back just as soon as the doctors at the Agency clear you.”
I was on the phone with the Agency medical division as soon as I got home. They were astounded by my progress, but after getting the download of my medical files from Dr. Sharma they told me to come in the next day for an evaluation. I was ecstatic. Despite the setback, I had a real chance to catch up with the other candidates in training. I still had a shot at Mars.
Amy seemed pleased as well but as quiet as Amy always was it was hard to tell. That night, when we went to bed, I noticed that there was a bit of a glow about Amy, a red one. It wasn’t anything terrible, just a slight red glow around the outline of her figure, like she was standing in front of a red light. It wasn’t an especially bright glow, but it was unusual. In the pit of my stomach I wondered if that was something that indicated a problem with the new eyes, but I decided not to say anything. Maybe I was pushing myself too hard.
After seeing the Agency doctors the next day the proclaimed me fit. George Ellis, the doc who had been flight surgeon on my last two missions and coincidentally, my closest friend, pulled me aside. “I’ve spoken with Dr. Sharma and we’re arranging for him to see you while you’re in training. No sense in delaying your progress any further when we can kill two birds with one stone.” That was the best news I could have hoped for.
That night as I was packing, I noticed the same glow around Amy. It was still red but darker now, with flecks of black. She told me how proud she was of me and that she just knew I would get picked. After all, if I could overcome this, nothing could stop me from getting what I wanted. The way she put it was a little strange but I just put it behind me. My mind was in Florida on the simulators.
I flew back to Port Canaveral the next day. I noticed that Amy’s aura (which I had begun calling it in my head) had grown slightly darker than it had been the night before. She seemed nervous and distracted; she almost made the wrong turn driving me to the airport and I had to ask her a couple of times if she was all right. “Yes, honey, I’m fine. I just hate seeing you go. The last time you went you could have been killed.”
At the airport I gave her a hug and a kiss. She seemed curiously withdrawn. I took her in my arms and told her “I know you’re worried darling, but the odds of something like that happening again are astronomical. I’ve had my glitch for the mission.” She laughed at that but it almost seemed token. I knew something was wrong but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I thought I knew at the time, for I told her “You know, if I get the Explorer mission, I’ll be gone for three years. Once I come home, it will be for good. It’s my last mission.” She looked at me a little strangely. “You know, honey, that would be nice but I can’t even think about it now. Just…go train and be safe.” She kissed me on the lips and turned and left. I thought she might have been crying. I hate goodbyes.
Training went well. Despite having been out for almost a month after the accident I really wasn’t as far behind as I might have been. It didn’t take long before I was back up to speed, and soon back at the front of the pack where I belonged. I was happy, so much so that I decided to give Amy a vid-call that night.
I hadn’t seen the aura on anyone else but Amy, so I didn’t think it necessary to tell anybody about it. When I called Amy though, I was jolted by shock. The aura was very apparent, even given the vid-phone distortion. It was also completely black, like someone had outlined her shape in dark black marker. She was also wearing a very tight mini-skirt and a low-cut top, the same outfit she’d worn to our anniversary dinner in Cancun three years ago but hadn’t worn since. Of course, I hadn’t been home for any of our anniversaries since.
“Sumner,” she said, and she seemed a bit out of breath, “I wasn’t expecting you to call.” The nervousness I’d detected a week before was much more apparent now. Something was definitely bothering her. “Really? You look fantastic. If I didn’t know better I’d say you had expected me to call and were dressing for the occasion.” Her laugh was a bit hollow. “I was just calling you to tell you that everything was going really well with training darling. It looks like I’m back in the drivers seat for the mission.” She looked anxious, wringing her hands…was that nail polish she was wearing? “That’s nice honey, I knew you could do it. You always do.”
She was wearing lipstick, too. She never wore make-up. “Are you expecting somebody darling? You really do look…” The expression on her face told me everything I needed to know. “You are, aren’t you?” She nodded, and the look of shame on her face didn’t make me feel any better. “Why?” was the only thing I could ask. “You’re never here. You haven’t been since the day you joined the program. Even if you’re home, your mind is on the next mission. I tried to be a good astronauts wife, but haven’t you noticed that most of your buddies in the program are divorced?”
There was a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Is that what you want?” I asked in a strangled voice. She was crying. “No, Sumner, that’s not what I want. I want you. I want you here. With me, and the kids. They want their daddy and I…I want a husband. And since I can’t have one for at least three years, I have needs that I can’t put off any more. I want a life. I want to live, and not just in your shadow.”
She hung her head. “I know I’ve hurt you, and I didn’t want to do that. I was hoping I could just have something on the side and when you got back from Mars, we could be together, we could work things out. If…if you still want to work things out, that is.” She couldn’t look at the screen. A million emotions were ping-ponging through me and I didn’t know how to stop the game. “Amy, I don’t know what to say.”
She looked up for the first time. “Just say you love me Sumner, and you want to work this out.” The trouble was, I did love her…just not very much at that moment. “I love you Amy, but right now my head is spinning and I’m not sure what I want. I’m not sure of anything. I’m due back in Houston next week…we can talk then.” She nodded. “I guess that’s the best I can hope for given the circumstances.” In the background, I could hear the doorbell ringing. “I guess that’s him,” I said. She nodded. “Look, let me take care of this. I’ll call you again later.” I said okay and hung up. I was feeling like someone had kicked me in the stomach but even in my pain I had noticed one thing. Just before the connection was broken, I noticed that her aura had increased and strange tendrils were flowing from it towards the door, and in that last millisecond I swore that the aura had enveloped her whole body.
She didn’t call in the next hour and I tried calling her, but there was no answer. I figured she was letting the guy down easy – typical Amy and bided my time. But when she didn’t call the next hour and the next hour after that, I grew worried. I kept calling and calling and there wasn’t an answer. I called Amy’s parents, who were watching our kids for her; she couldn’t get ahold of Amy either.
I grew angry. I felt betrayed. I figured at this point she’d decided to go through with it with the guy and to hell with her. I went to bed, furious at Amy and furious at myself for not having seen it sooner.
I was awakened the next morning by the door ringing. It was Dr. George, and his expression told me there was something wrong right away. He was accompanied by an MP. I sat down, dreading what he was about to say. As it turned out, I had reason to.
Amy was dead. The man she was meeting was someone she’d met on the Net, and he turned out to be a sexual predator. Apparently, she’d tried to send him away and he wasn’t up for taking no for an answer. He spent the night doing what he came there for, which apparently included torturing my wife to death. He’d even brought sound dampeners so the neighbors wouldn’t hear her screams. The only reason the police even knew what had happened, George told me, was that my call to Amy’s folks had worried them to the point where they had called the police and sent them to the house, where the bastard who murdered her was still cleaning up.
I was devastated, but once again I noticed a black aura on the MP. I hadn’t seen it on anyone else but Amy, but again I was a bit too distracted to really put two and two together.
The next days passed in a blur. I flew back to Houston for the funeral. The kids were inconsolable and so was I. I didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, Mars didn’t seem to be anywhere near as important as it had been. I was beginning to wonder if I should pass on the mission to stay with my children.
The funeral was awful. It was a closed casket affair – apparently the carnage done had been so severe that the police had suggested that nobody see the corpse. I was fine with that. Then, after the reception, I sat down with Amy’s folks and the kids. I asked them if they wanted me to stay home with them, and our daughter Lynne, who at 13 looked the spitting image of Amy (so much so it hurt to look at her) looked me in the eye and said “I don’t think mom would want you to give up on your dreams on account of her. Tom-tom (our son) talked it over with me and he agrees.” I saw Tom nodding and I started to cry, as did Amy’s parents. We all hugged.
It took a few days to take care of Amy’s affairs. I arranged for Lynne and Tom to stay with Amy’s parents and flew back to Houston. The mood there was somber. I asked George about it at a local bar over a beer, and he said “Well, there’s what happened to Amy. Everyone feels terrible for you; a lot of people didn’t think you’d continue on with the program. I’m frankly surprised you did too.” I told him what the kids said and he nodded. “Frankly,” I sighed as we sat at the bar, “it’s probably for the best. They know her folks better than they know me. I haven’t been around much.” George nodded and we continued drinking.
It was a bar frequented by members of the program, and there were pictures all over the walls of those who had died in service for the program. Throughout the night people would stop by and pay their respects; it actually helped a lot more than I would have guessed. As George and I were leaving for the night, I noticed a new picture on the wall that brought me up short. “Isn’t that the MP who came with you to tell me about Amy?” George stopped and said sadly “Yeah it is. He was killed in a jeep accident on the base.”
A cold wave coursed through me. Suddenly I remembered the black aura on both Amy and the MP. Could it be related? I had never seen anything like it before the transplant; I thought it was a side effect. Could there be something else going on, something unanticipated?
I sat up all night thinking about it but being a pragmatist – as an astronaut it’s a real necessity – I decided it had to be a coincidence and the actual aura effect was explainable somehow. I kept telling myself over the next days and weeks as I continued training up until the day the Agency director called me into his office. When I walked in, I was shocked to see the black aura around him. I heard him tell me that I had been selected as commander for the Explorer mission but that didn’t matter much. What did matter was that he looked pale and was sweating profusely. “Hey chief, that’s great news,” I said, trying to keep my voice light, “but I’m a little concerned. You don’t look so good. Are you all right?” He shook his head, smiling wanly. “Must have ate too many jalapenos at lunch,” he said shaking his head, “I’ve got a touch of indigestion but I’m sure it’ll be fine after I take some antacids.”
I went directly from the director’s office to George’s. He gave me the thumbs up. “I heard already. Congratulations! Wanna go out and celebrate tonight?” I shook my head and closed the door behind me. “There’s something I have to tell you,” I said and I told him about the auras I was seeing. He listened gravely, and then he looked at me and said “First off, we’re going to see Dr. Sharma and make sure there’s nothing wrong with your transplants. But don’t you think even if there is something going on that it’s just coincidence? You’ve only seen it twice, after all.” I shook my head. “Three times, George. I saw it again today around Director Stone.”
George’s eyes bugged out a little then and I knew there was something he knew that he wasn’t telling me. All he did do, however was pick up the phone and call Dr. Sharma’s office and arrange for an appointment for me.
I flew back to Houston for the first time since the funeral and went straightaway to Dr. Sharma’s office. He and his staff ran a battery of tests on my eyes. I told Dr. Sharma for the first time about the auras and he looked at me quizzically when I asked him if it was possible that this was a side effect of the surgery. He said slowly, choosing his words carefully “I suppose it could be but I have never heard of anything like this before. I will do some research…you say you only see it on certain people, not everyone?” I looked him straight in the eye and said “Everyone I’ve seen the aura around has died within 24 hours of me seeing it.”
Dr. Sharma got up and shut the door to his office. He sat back down and looked at me with measuring eyes. “You my friend are a pragmatic sort, so let me tell you that it is logical to accept that we do not know everything that is knowable, do you not agree?” I nodded. That made sense to me and I told him so. He looked at me squarely and said “There are things that are scientifically provable and things that are not. That which has to do with death is a great mystery and nothing is provable, other than that we all die.” He stood and paced around the office. “There are some, Mr. Kaine, who believe that the time of our death is pre-determined. Perhaps, if that’s true, our bodies recognize that fact and give off a sort of energy that signifies it. Perhaps you are able to see that energy where others can’t. But that kind of ability isn’t unknown. I have heard of others who possessed it, the ability to see auras, or specific energies that others cannot. Let me do some research and I will get back to you.”
The next day when I got back to the Cape, George was waiting for me. “Director Stone died last night. Massive coronary. Get in the goddamn car.” We drove to the Astronaut training center in silence. We would not speak about the auras again.
The rest of the mission training went on with the team of 8 astronauts that would be going to Mars and their back-ups. I didn’t see any other auras and told nobody else about them. Dr. Sharma called me once to tell me he was still researching the condition but didn’t have anything concrete to give me. I didn’t expect that he would.
The mission team was sent to Lunar Base 1 for final preparations for the journey. The spacecraft Explorer 1 would launch from lunar orbit, using the lunar and earth orbits to slingshot it to Mars. Explorer 1 was the most sophisticated spacecraft ever made. It had special radiation shielding to protect the crew from months of exposure to solar radiation, as well as enough renewable fuel, water and food to last the 8 person crew the journey to Mars and back.
The launch went by the numbers; we had drilled for more than a year to get to that point and the training was worth every moment. The slingshot manouvers went perfectly and we were on our way. Most of the trip to the Red Planet was boredom followed by tedium. We had some science experiments to conduct but for the most part we didn’t have a lot to do. We did a lot of training exercises preparing for the landing that was almost a year away. Every so often we got messages from Earth and it was nice to see my children, but it was hard seeing them; I was reminded of Amy each time I saw them.
Eventually we arrived at Mars orbit and the mission changed dramatically, from tedium to suddenly being insanely busy. We all were preparing the various scientific equipment for transport to the Martian surface and the habitat we would live in on Mars for more than a month. There was also a Mars Rover vehicle that would allow us to explore up to 100 miles away from base camp. We wanted to make the most of our time there.
The time came at last and we strapped into the landing vehicle, which had been nicknamed Eureka. We were making final preparations for Eureka separation when I finally looked up and felt my heart stop. Around every one of the other seven astronauts was the same black aura, with the tendrils.. With a sudden decisive snap I shut my helmet and locked it even though we weren’t supposed to do that. Just as I did, the explosive bolts detonated a full five minutes early and the lander separated with the hatches still open. There was explosive decompression and all eight of us were blown into space.
The other seven hadn’t shut their helmets and were dead before they even knew there was a problem. I was blown away from the spacecraft travelling hundreds of miles of hour, the newest satellite orbiting Mars. I watched as the Explorer 1 imploded. I wondered how long it would take for the Agency to realize that there was anything wrong. I wondered if they would ever know what happened. They might recover one or two of the bodies if they remained in orbit long enough. Chances are we wouldn’t; we would fall slowly into the atmosphere of Mars and burn up in a spectacular re-entry.
I wouldn’t live long enough to burn alive, however. I would suffocate when my oxygen ran out. I probably wouldn’t wait for that though. At some point I would open my faceplate and be flash frozen, quickly and painlessly. Right now, I’m just enjoying the view.